You don’t go to De Hoop Nature Reserve for three hours by road from Cape Town just to see the whales. Yes, it is one of the world’s best land-based whale-watching areas, but this marine-protected area is also a World Heritage Site.
It’s here, between July and November, that the endangered southern right whales (whalers of bygone days christened them “right” because of their highly sought-after blubber and oil) come to calve and rest, while the males show off with stunning displays of breaching, sailing, lobtailing and spy-hopping.
De Hoop is situated just a few kilometres from Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of the continent, and comprises 36 000 hectares of spectacular scenery. You’ll discover rare fynbos, amazing birdlife and endangered animals, plus a 19km vlei that is home to pelicans, flamingoes and scores of other water birds.
In 2008, two men – William Stephens and Carl Trieloff – in conjunction with Cape Nature, really put De Hoop on the map.
The whitewashed cottages, houses, manor suites and campsite rondavels known as the De Hoop Collection, and priced for all pockets, offer some of the loveliest accommodation in the Cape. Choose from a family unit in the De Hoop Village to a vlei cottage, all with en-suite bathrooms and fully equipped kitchens, from which you can watch the sun go down as flocks of birds fly low over the water. All you need to do is bring your own food.
If you’re looking for perfect peace and quiet, there can be few places in South Africa to match the 1872 Melkkamer Cottage on the far side of the vlei.
I arrive with a friend at dusk at the main Opstal Manor House, home to the Fig Tree Restaurant, an inviting shop, a serene spa and ancient fig trees guarding lawns where eland and bontebok are grazing.
It’s a 40-minute drive by game vehicle (or your car) from Opstal to Melkkamer, where gas lamps flicker behind leaded windows and a barn owl flies softly overhead. By day, you can cross back to Opstal by boat on the vlei, a 20-minute ride that gives you a panoramic view of the high white dunes leading down to the sea, or a close-up encounter with a pelican.
At Melkkamer Cottage you are totally alone with nature; with 100-year-old giant milkwood trees, an evocative sense of history, the soft ripple of water and, as we were privileged to watch one night, a firework display of shooting stars.
Dalfrenzo Laing from Napier, a rookie when we first met him on his 21st birthday a few years ago, is now a fully accredited guide. We drive to the beaches of Koppie Alleen to see the whales and to take a guided marine walk.
Ah, the whales! They literally take the breath away. Imagine a 15m black-and-white creature leaping out of the sea in front of you, breaching and blowing. It dives, waits a while and then repeats the performance a few more times. It’s a sight like no other. Other whales drift lazily along and calves stay close to their mothers.
When we can tear ourselves away from just standing and goggling, we walk along the beach. The tide is out and rock pools glimmer among the black rocks. De Hoop is one of the world’s most unspoilt rocky shores, with the largest diversity of intertidal creatures anywhere in the world.
Dalfrenzo shows us an abalone the size of his clenched fist – literally worth its weight in gold. Elmae, who is learning to be a guide, first picks up a starfish and shows us how it catches its prey, then a sea urchin with spikes and tiny teeth.
We learn about limpets and the kelp forest, essential to the health of the sea.
At De Hoop, you can also take a hiking, cycling or mountain biking trail through the fynbos, keeping an eye out for baboons, Cape mountain zebra, ostrich and any number of birds.
The landscape in late September is a blaze of colour – orange daisies, pink and scarlet proteas, yellow cone bushes, delicate blue ground cover.
All the while, in the distance, you can hear the Atlantic breakers crashing on the sandy shores.
Walk, cycle, run or just amble along the flower-covered plains or deserted coastline, snorkel in the rock pools or take a scenic game drive.
Order a picnic from the restaurant, have high tea under the spreading branches of giant trees, or just do your own thing.
Plus, in season, the whales…
What to read next on Traveller24:
- Overberg Insider: 5 Lesser-known dorpies to love
Disclaimer: Turkington was a guest of the De Hoop Collection. Rates range from R1 150 to R2 750 per night per person sharing and include breakfast and dinner. Units range from the rondavel for two at R1 050 per night to the Manor House for up to eight people at R10 600 per night – and many options in between. De Hoop is also a wedding venue.